Dithering Diplomacy: The Dutch and the Iraqi Crisis

By Hylarides, Peter | Contemporary Review, June 2003 | Go to article overview

Dithering Diplomacy: The Dutch and the Iraqi Crisis


Hylarides, Peter, Contemporary Review


THE war in Iraq has created an almost unbridgeable gap between the world's most important allies - the United States and Europe. The European Union is hopelessly divided with Britain firmly on the side of the US, whilst Germany and France have until recently been trying to outdo each other in America-bashing. The latter has, of course, continuously sought to play a dominant role in Europe and it is on France's bureaucratic lines that the European Union has been created. The Netherlands has played only a minor role in the Iraq crisis. It is interesting to observe, though, the position of the Dutch government in that crisis. In a previous article in Contemporary Review on the Dutch in Europe, I concluded that their attitudes towards Europe have generally been dominated by an odd mixture of national interest, dictated by mercantile concerns, and a struggle to maintain influence without incurring the wrath of other European nations. The same is true in their relations with the United States.

When the Iraq issue came to the forefront in September 2002. the Dutch government was one of the first in Europe to say that only a hard-line approach would work. The Christian Democrat (CDA) Minister of Foreign Affairs Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, a former diplomat, went even further by saying that military means would not be excluded at forehand. In an interview published in the evening newspaper NRC Handelsblad, Mr De Hoop Scheffer said, 'if consensus cannot be reached in the UN and one permanent member of the Security Council will use its veto power' (then) we must create a coalition that is not withheld by that one veto. The tone had changed a bit by November 2002 when the coalition government consisting of CDA, VVD (Liberal Democrats) and LPF (Pim Fortuyn List) was relegated to the role of caretaker after it fell a few weeks earlier.

A little over a week after the Security Council unanimously approved Resolution 1441, the Dutch government was approached by the US government through diplomatic channels to co-operate in principal with military contributions in case of military action in Iraq. During the debate in Parliament, the two main coalition parties in government, VVD (Liberal Party) and CDA (Christian Democrats) indicated that they would be in favour of military support. The main opposition party PvdA (Labour Party) pointed out that there was enough pressure on Iraq to co-operate with UN weapons inspectors. The case for possible military support was premature, as the United Nations should have the opportunity to exhaust all peaceful means to force the Iraqis to comply with Resolution 1441. Jaap de Hoop Scheffer then gave a typical Dutch reaction. Though personally in favour of increasing pressure on Iraq, he said that the government took the matter very seriously but that 'everything was still open'. 'I do not wish to go out from the inevitability of war', he concluded. His remarks clearly show the dilemmas with which the Dutch government has been confronted over the years. Embedded between and depending on Germany and France, they cannot afford to alienate their main European partners too much. By that time it was already clear that France and Germany were on a collision course with the US government over Iraq. Gravitating between a clear 'yes' and 'no' could keep both sides happy.

Another sign of dithering became visible in December when the British requested Dutch co-operation for a joint fleet exercise in the eastern part of the Mediterranean. It was turned down by the Dutch government as it would 'send out the wrong signals', according to De Hoop Scheffer and Minister of Defence Henk Kamp (VYD). When asked to clarify his position by NRC Handelsblad, Mr Kamp said, 'We must not get sucked into decision making determined by others. I won't co-operate with that. It is not in the interest of the country'. A request by the Americans about using Dutch airspace and harbours was nevertheless granted.

During the NATO Council meeting in January, the Dutch distanced themselves from their Benelux partners Belgium and Luxembourg and, of course, France and Germany, by supporting the contingency plans drawn up by the alliance in case of a military conflict. …

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